The events in Ukraine have much of the world in a mood to raise a toast to freedom. They have me thinking of a lunch with Viktor Yushchenko I attended at the Hotel Postli in Davos during the 2005 World Economic Forum. Ukraine’s Orange Revolution was underway and Yushchenko was still president. The impact of the famous poisoning was still visible as greenish gray patches on the presidential punim. The most memorable part of the meal was the toast that the president proposed.
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Yushchenko began by giving us to believe it was in Ukraine that the institution of the toast was invented. He invited us to fill our glasses. Then he stressed it was important to make sure the glasses were clinked forcefully. He told us the traditional method of assassination in Ukraine was - here he paused for effect, I noted when I wrote this up at the time - poisoning. The point at which one guarded against this fate was the toast.
The idea, Yushchenko explained, was that one had to clink glasses with enough force that some drops of each drink spilled into the other glass. With that the president bade his lunch companions to clink their glasses and make a toast. It was a marvelous moment, and I took it as a metaphor for the fact that one has to be careful regarding Ukraine. Always be on guard. Seems like an apt thought at this hour of uprising against tyranny.
What triggers this reverie is a piece out that was linked on the Drudge Report Sunday under the headline, “Chief rabbi warns Jews: Avoid protests.” The link opened an interview broadcast on WABC radio in New York with Ukraine’s chief rabbi, Yaacov Dov Bleich. The interview had been conducted from Tel Aviv by Aaron Klein, and was covered on the conservative site World Net Daily.
I had been wondering about the Jews, as I tend to do when I hear the word Ukraine. It’s not of any indifference to the larger picture and the vast East-West clash of civilizations, about which there has, for good reason, been a good bit written. But the Jews have had a storied history in Ukraine. On the one hand, one of the three long-ago gates of Kiev was known as Judaic. On the other hand, there was Khmelnitsky.
He is the Ukrainian national hero, who led the Cossacks to power and whose massacres of the Jews were some of the bloodiest in our history. There is also the Black Hundred and the blood libel against Mendel Beilis. So what is one to make of the reports, retailed by the Russians, of neo-Nazis and skinheads among those in the uprising? How serious an issue is this for the Jews?
Bleich, a Chabad rabbi, put the number of Jews in Ukraine today at 200,000. His message, at least as I took it, was not to stay neutral politically but to stay safe. “We have a very, very large community of young families with children who are living in Kiev,” he told Klein. “There is no question about it: The Jewish community needs to stay vigil(ant) and see what is going to be.”
“Jews,” he said, “are members of civil society in Ukraine. We are a minority. We have been living there peacefully throughout the last 22 years of Ukrainian independence. We want to continue. The community is developing. We want to feel safe. ... We don’t want to have to worry about attacks no matter where they are coming from or who is orchestrating them.”
Bleich was characterized by Klein as saying “there is an element among the opposition, including some within the nationalist Svoboda party, ‘who [have] among its rank-and-file members nationalists, some of them are neo-Nazis or neo-fascists, people who are not embarrassed to say they hate Jews. … They are a minority. They are there.”
The chief rabbi characterized the vast majority as “grassroots, regular everyday old people from Ukraine that were fed up with living in a corrupt society, and they came out to protest against it to try to make change and they were successful in making change.” He said: “That’s the majority. They are not anti-Semites. They are not right-wing nationalist neo-fascists or Nazis the way the Russians are trying to paint them.”
Which I was glad to hear crackling over the airwaves here in New York. And if it seems like a small point to wonder about in the midst of such large events, I’m inclined to defer to the little history lesson that Yushchenko gave his lunch guests back in Davos. Raise a glass, by all means, and wish the revolution luck. But give the glass a good solid clink before you imbibe.